Directed by Scott Hicks
Starring Geoffrey Rush, Noah Taylor, Armin Mueller-Stahl, John Gielgud & Vanessa Redgrave.
Opened: December 25, 1996 | Rated: PG
Remarkable, engaging performances all around are what gives "Shine" it's shine.
A story that wouldn't get past "give it to me in 25 words or less" in Hollywood, this $4 million Australian production follows child prodigy pianist David Helfgott from his formative years under the thumb of an abusive, obsessive-compulsive father through a breakdown in his teens that sidelined his budding music career and through his nervous, unstable adulthood as he rediscovers his confidence to perform.
Character-driven from the opening credits, the film is carried by two compelling actors Noah Taylor, who plays Helfgott as a teen, and Geoffrey Rush, whose stuttering, stream-of-consciousness delivery embodies the unbridled genius of the adult Helfgott, a real-life virtuoso who has only recently begun performing again after spending much of his adult life in and out of care homes.
His childhood, told largely in flashbacks, is dominated by his father (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who recognized his son's extraordinary abilities and pushes him to practice and learn. Fatherly love soon becomes single-mindedness, but when Helfgott is accepted to prestigious music schools abroad, his father refuses him permission to go, siting an obsession with family unity, strength and pride.
In the face of much abuse, the young musician eventually defies his father, who subsequently disowns him, and studies in London. His mentor there, his surrogate father figure, comes in another striking performance by John Gielgud, who holds the audience rapt with his lessons about the passion of a good symphony.
Under his tutelage, Helfgott conquers Rachmaninoff, arguable the composer of the most difficult piano concertos ever written, but his mind begins to slip after years of obsessive piano-playing.
The notes on the page are just a jumping off point for "Shine." The passion for the music constantly rattling around in Helfgott's head is what drives the film.
Handsomely photographed, the concert scenes are given the energy of a fight in a Jackie Chan movie. It's pianist versus music in a contest of wills, embodied by swirling, dizzying camera work. In one of these scenes the young Helfgott is finally overcome by his drive and collapses on stage in a pool of sweat.
Sweat that follows him into the present in the form of symbolic rain. Opening with a rainstorm, the "Shine" begins with Helfgott in his 40s and wandering the streets between nights at flophouse. He is re-discovered after ducking into a coffee shop during a storm, drawn by the shop's neglected piano. He sits down and nonchalantly plays "Flight of the Bumble Bee" to the astonished applause of the patrons.
The owner of the shop takes him under her wing, and he at last finds some kind of peace -- a simple life living above the shop and accompanying diners.
The film progresses with the partial recovery of his wits, his return to notoriety (he'd been widely known as a prodigy) and his courtship of a friend of his employer (Vanessa Redgrave).
The buzz has been that "Shine" is one of the best pictures of 1996. I don't rank it quite that high, but to miss it would be certainly denying yourself two of the best performances of the year from Taylor and Rush.